Nikolai (Ozzie) Ozerov, the Russian Cosell, suddenly stopped talking, but his mouth remained in its normal position—open. Was that a slight smile that Ozzie saw on the cold face of Boris (Chuckles) Kulagin? Holy Lenin, it was. Harold Ballard, the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, had just presented Kulagin, the coach of the Soviet National hockey team, with a 40-ounce decanter of 20-year-old Scotch and, yes, Kulagin's great stone face actually cracked a quick grin as he accepted the liquor and mumbled "Spasibo, spasibo" to Ballard. However, as Ozerov no doubt told his 100 million listeners back in Russia, except for that one fleeting facial lapse Ol' Chuckles wore his regular sour look most of last week. Team Canada '74—or Team Castoff, as Winger Johnny McKenzie called the World Hockey Association's all-stars—stunned 20 million Canadians by playing the cocky young Soviets to a 1-1-1 standoff in the opening games of hockey's second summit meeting.
The all-stars, composed of 25 NHL defectors and Gordie Howe's sons, Mark and Marty, were supposed to lose every game by at least a "touchdown," according to one Canadian journal. "Everyone naturally figured that if the NHL couldn't beat the Russians until the final minute of the final game back in 1972, then there was no way that the WHA could beat the Russians in 1974," said Defenseman Pat Stapleton. "I played on that '72 team and as it turned out we were unprepared—overconfident. Now we know how good they are—and how to play against them. Psychologically, we have a great advantage."
Psychologically, this Team Canada was also motivated by an antiestablishment vendetta against the NHL. Bobby Hull, J.C. Tremblay and Gerry Cheevers all were selected for the NHL's 1972 Team Canada but then were discarded when they signed contracts to play in the new WHA, while such NHL rejects as Andre Lacroix, Paul Shmyr and Johnny McKenzie have long been used as prime cases in point when NHL people talk disparagingly about the quality of talent in the WHA. "It was childish of the NHL to blackball me the last time," Hull said, "but I don't hold much grudge. You have to forgive children." Lacroix, a center for Philadelphia and Chicago in the NHL, has scored more than 100 points in each of his two WHA seasons, yet General Manager Tommy Ivan of the Black Hawks says, "Lacroix wouldn't be one of the top 20 players on our roster."
At Quebec City, in Game One of the Russian series, Hull scored two goals and an assist, Lacroix had two assists and McKenzie had a goal and an assist as Team Canada thoroughly dominated the play but had to settle for a 3-3 tie because of the superb goaltending of Vladislav Tretiak, an army lieutenant from Moscow. "The young Hull was very good," a grim Kulagin admitted. Young? Hull is 35, although with his new mop of hair he could pass for 29.
September 29, 1974
Two nights later the young Hull and Lacroix combined for two goals and three assists as Cheevers did to the Russians what Tretiak usually does to the Canadians in a solid 4-1 victory at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens. Rather than change his goaltending style for the Russians, as Ken Dryden did without much success in 1972, Cheevers played his normal game and stayed well out from the net, using his stick to detour the passes the Russians like to make near the goal. "If you stay back," he said, "they'll beat you all night."
Harry Sinden, who coached the 1972 Team Canada, watched the game in Toronto and wondered what had happened to the crisp Russian attack that had ripped his all-stars. "It was a piece of cake for the WHA," he said. "Two years ago the Russians never had a bad shift, let alone a bad game, and they never gave the puck away or got caught up-ice for two-on-one breakaways. Why didn't they play this way against us?"
Two reasons. In an attempt to develop some Bobby Orrs, the Russians now permit their defensemen to carry the puck, something that earned banishment to Siberia in the past. And when they carry it, they usually lose it. Indeed, in the first two games Team Canada had some 20 two-on-one breakaways and six pure breakaways against Tretiak.
"We're also making them look bad by taking out a player the instant he passes the puck," said Stapleton. "Two years ago it took us about seven games to discover that a Russian player passes the puck and promptly skates into position to get it back on the next pass. Well, we're hitting these guys and preventing them from getting that next pass. That's why they've been passing the puck to us as much as to themselves."
When the series moved to Winnipeg on Saturday, Team Canada Coach Billy Harris tried for a psychological kill by benching Cheevers and five other regulars and playing six fresh, young, inexperienced skaters. "If we beat the Russians with this lineup," Harris said, "we'll demoralize them and put them right out of business." Not all his players agreed. "We've got them down now," one regular said. "Let's keep them there. We should play our best at all times. The Russians don't rest their best guys. Ever." Final score: Russia 8, Canada 5. In Monday's fourth game in Vancouver and next week's four in Moscow, Harris said he would play "my best."
Both the WHA and the Soviets consider the series of paramount importance. If the WHA ultimately wins it, or merely continues to play respectably, it will gain total credibility as a major league and probably will demand an NHL-WHA Super Bowl in 1975. But if the WHA loses several games by "touchdowns," as predicted, the hard-line NHL partisans will overpublicize the castoff angle and suggest that "old men" like Gordie Howe should be collecting their NHL pensions instead of embarrassing themselves on the ice. Still, there would not have been any '74 summit if the WHA had not volunteered to play the Russians. The NHL no longer wants to play them on an all-star team basis, preferring individual games between regular teams, and it insists that any future NHL-Soviet games be played in the middle of the NHL schedule, not at the beginning.
On the surface there seems little hope that a real Team Canada, composed of players from both the WHA and the NHL, ever will play the Soviet national team. Such a group might have been formed this year if the WHA owners had accepted the high bid of $853,000 for the television rights to the series instead of deciding to sell the advertising spots themselves. The $853,000 tender was guaranteed by Bobby Orr Enterprises Ltd., which had bought the TV rights to the 1972 series. If Orr Enterprises had got them this year, Orr undoubtedly would have played and would have persuaded top NHL men to join him.
For the Soviets the series marked the debut of Kulagin as head coach. When he assumed control, Kulagin dropped 10 veterans and replaced them with 10 players in their early 20s. "We have brought them here to learn from the Canadian professionals," he said. It was an interesting educational experience. Sergei Kapustin, 21, already has found out what most North American pros learned very early: never challenge Gordie Howe near the boards. In Quebec City, Kapustin trailed Howe, a young 46, into the boards for a loose puck only to receive an elbow massage for his effort. Howe calmly collected the puck and passed it out to Hull for a goal. Sergie Kotov, also 21, learned never to skate too closely to pro goaltenders, particularly goaltenders who like to use their sticks machete-style. On his first shift in the series, Kotov glided across the crease in front of Cheevers and ended up with a very sore ankle.
It was nothing, though, in comparison with the NHL's migraine.